Bad news out of Detroit. That’s not so surprising. It could be about crime statistics or the collapse of American industry or further indignities suffered by their local football franchise. We could be talking about any year in the last several decades.
The difference is, this time the news out of Detroit is bad for Minnesota.
In the NFL season opener, the Detroit Lions upset the reigning-champion Kansas City Chiefs on their home turf under the brightest of lights.
Mathematically, it’s not so miraculous. The spread only hovered around 4.5 in favor of the Chiefs. But, historically speaking, it’s a stunner.
Since the inception of the Kickoff Game to open the season, which began way back in 2002, the home team has only lost five times in two decades. The Chiefs accounted for one of those road-team victories when they handily beat the New England Patriots in 2017.
Anyone who watches a lot of NFC North football knows the history goes much deeper than that — specifically that the Lions are historically bad. We’re talking winless seasons, playoff droughts, total unfamiliarity with the Super Bowl. You know the drill.
That long, sad trajectory has made life miserable in Detroit (or, you know, more so), but it’s made the winters feel a little warmer in Minnesota. In the past six years, the Lions have only beaten the Vikings three times.
The story of the Vikings for those six years is one of mediocrity with occasional bursts of suspicious excellence. The team has been tremendously okay, with the exception of last season, when they won a bonkers number of one-score games, and in 2017 when a stacked Mike Zimmer-led team actually tried to go to the Super Bowl with Case Keenum under center. (Friendly reminder: The Minneapolis Miracle was entirely based on botched defense.)
The Vikings haven’t been truly terrible in awhile, but they’ve been frustratingly fine. Even in the moment, their brushes with glory feel like brief flashes of fortune bound to regress back to the mean.
But if the Vikings hadn’t been playing the Lions twice a year during this stretch, they would have been actively bad. One way to look at it: The Lions accounted for a significant percentage of Minnesota’s total victories in almost all of the past six seasons.
- 2017: 7% (one win, 13-3 record)
- 2018: 25% (two wins, 8-7-1 record)
- 2019: 20% (two wins, 10-6 record)
- 2020: 29% (two wins, 7-9 record)
- 2021: 12.5% (one win, 8-9 record)
- 2022: 8% (one win, 13-4 record)
For the Vikings, the Lions are (pick your metaphor): a security blanket, a doormat, a safety net, a whipping boy. Without them, the good seasons would have been a little less thrilling, and some of the passable seasons would have been…well, as ugly as they often seemed if you were really watching closely.
The Lions no longer represent a soft spot on the schedule, which they proved with their gutsy win over Kansas City.
Admittedly, they threatened to really Lion it up at times. The back-to-back fumble sequence was vintage Detroit in the same way that you can only call sparkling wine “champagne” if it comes from a specific region in France. And Dan Campbell, The Thirstiest Coach In the NFL, threatened let his feeling and his inhuman blood-caffeine level get the best of him when he gave the ball back to Patrick Mahomes at midfield, down just a point with over five minutes remaining, on one of his patented fourth-down overreaches. The Chiefs receivers even helped out by having more drops than a tropical rainstorm, specifically Kadarius Toney, whose fingers were so buttery he must have just come from the State Fair (or maybe a matinee of Barbie).
Even if Detroit hadn’t been able to finish off the victory, they still would have looked strong against an AFC powerhouse. Still, Vikings fans could have whistled a Prince tune through that particular graveyard. They still blew it, we could tell ourselves. Even when they’re good, Detroit is still Detroit.
But they did not blow it.
It would seem that Detroit is not, in fact, still Detroit.
The Vikings have a tough enough schedule without a couple of former easy Ls transforming into uphill battles. They’ve been getting by on good enough for the last half decade, and Detroit played a major part in that. Now that the earth is shifting beneath everyone’s cleats in the NFC North, Minnesota is going to have to get actually good, and fast. Because the Detroit Lions aren’t slowing down.
At the very least, it’s enough to make any purple-clad football fan think the unthinkinkable: Thank God for the Chicago Bears.